Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

 Being Film #6 in Hail Horror 5

Before writing this I went back and read the previous reviews I've written on Dario Argento films (for those curious, TENEBRE, PHENOMENA, and FOUR FILES ON GREY VELVET), and the same theme crops up again and again: even when things don't make a lick of sense, Argento is such a visually striking director it becomes easy to fall into his films and enjoy the ride.  So far I've been lucky in my selection of his work: besides the above, I've luxuriated in the saturated colors of SUSPIRIA and marveled at the ingenuity on display in works as early as THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and the Godfather of giallo films, DEEP RED.  But that was the trick; Argento has a large enough discography you can bounce around and find classic after classic and take a while before you bump into a clunker like THE MOTHER OF TEARS.  The general rule seems to be, stick to the early stuff - anything in the last twenty years and you're in danger of some serious crummery.

But I had heard a lot of good things about THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, the first Italian film to use CGI, and it certainly didn't hurt that Argento cast his lovely daughter Asia as the lead, and since it was available in HD on Netflix Instant Streaming I curled up in bed Saturday morning and checked it out.

Boasting another great score by Ennio Morricione, THE STENDHAL SYNDROME stylistically feels right at home alongside his other great giallo films of the 70s and early 80s.  Asia Argento is Anna Manni, a policewoman from Rome recently arrived in Florence to compare notes with the local law about a vicious rapist who has lately started murdering his victims with a shot through the head.  She receives a call from a stranger stating the killer is indeed in Florence, and will be at the world famous Uffizi Gallery.  Anna goes on her own to see if he's there, but becomes entranced by the sheer volume of art on display, and falls prey to the Stendhal Syndrome, a real-life affliction where the person becomes faint and can even hallucinate at the sight of beautiful or large amounts of art.  In Anna's case, she falls into a painting of an ocean where an enormous fish promptly swims up and begins to make out with her.

Yeah, so right away we're kind of back in Ken Russell territory, but the scene, surreal as it is, serves as the template for Anna's condition, and is used as an indicator for her sanity throughout the film.  Anna, now slightly amnesiac, is helped up by Alfredo, a young man who witnesses the event and helps her with her belongings.  She returns to her hotel room, still dazed by what happened and is confronted by another painting which opens up as a doorway, allowing her to travel back in time to the scene of the crime that brought her to Florence. While the remarked-upon CGI is a little shoddy in certain places (there's an odd scene of Anna swallowing some pills that we watch travel through her system), when it comes to the paintings coming to life and transporting her it's surprisingly effective.  After walking through the doorway and reliving the events that prompt her police chief to send her to Florence, Anna walks back to her room and regains her memory.  It sounds crazy, but these sequences find Argento perfectly in his element, using his signature dream logic to give everything a spaced-out feeling.

But as soon as she returns to reality things take a startling turn as Alfredo appears in her room, now revealed as (surprise) the killer and has been tracking her ever since she left Rome.  I'm used to violence in film, and in particular to violence in Argento films, where everything takes on a surreal, fetishistic tone.  THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, though, pushes the envelop for what I'm comfortable with: Alfredo, unmasked so early, brutally rapes Anna, cutting her lips with a razor blade he keeps in his month, and punching her to keep her screaming all the while.  It's extremely unsettling, and Argento is unforgiving in the way he shoots it, using intense close-ups of Alfredo playing with the razor in his mouth, the drops of blood that stain the sheets, and the terrified, sweat-soaked face of Anna.  Mercifully she's knocked unconscious, only to have the brutality kicked up another notch when she wakes up in a car next to another woman getting raped and then shot by Alfredo, who gazes at Anna through a hole in the dead woman's face:

Anna escapes, but the experience leaves lasting effects: she can't stop thinking about what happened, can't stand the thought of being so defenseless, and how that is tied into her gender.  She cuts her hair severely short, begins dressing in slacks and jackets, won't let her boyfriend touch her (in another brutal scene she winds up frantically assaulting him), takes up boxing with her brother.  I think the other real surprise besides the viciousness of her rape is the the amount of realistic psychological damage Argento injects into the story.  In the past with films like FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET and  to a lesser extent DEEP RED and TENEBRE the mental instability (for lack of a better term) of the victims or the killers seemed tacked on, used for shock effect without really diving into the grit and realism those conditions would have on the person.  Here it feels much more tangible, and that realism adds to the tragedy we feel as Anna's sanity slowly starts to crumble.  It should be noted that Asia Argento is fantastic as Anna, convincing us in every scene of the pain and torment she's in, whether it's having a tortuous dinner with her family or being trapped in the clutches of Alfredo...

..which happens again, halfway through the film in an extended scene that's even worse than what came before.  However this time the tables are turned and Anna not only manages to escape, but to inflict some serious revenge on Alfredo (there's a truly twisted moment involving bed springs) before kicking him to his death over a cliff.  The only trouble is, when the police arrive they can't find the body...

This would be the ending for most films, but we're only an hour into THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, which now takes a left turn as Anna physically transforms again, donning a platinum blonde wig and falling in love with Marie, an exchange student from France who works at the local museum.  Argento always manages to make the most of his sets and locations, achieving a wonderful sense of skewered balance by accentuating different aspects of the scene.  The museum where Marie works is a perfect example, the workers dwarfed by the gargantuan sculptures that lay haphazardly (but oh so carefully arranged) around the room:

Let's see: large, white stone heads and arms, all detached from bodies in a museum?  What do you think the chances are those statues will be covered with blood soon?

If you said, "pretty good" give yourself a pat on the back.

The ending of THE STENDHAL SYNDROME leads you in one direction and then takes a left turn that, while not all that surprising, is still surprisingly effective and ends on a more somber note that I would have thought. It was said that originally Asia Argento was going to reprise her role in a sequel of sorts but scheduling issues changed that plan (the film was cast with another lead and turned into the not-so-well received THE CARD PLAYER in 2004).  Based on what happens in THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, that would have been an interesting film indeed.  But at least we have this, a surprisingly good, mature film from coming so much later in a career that seemed to have peaked 15 years before.  Let's hope there's more to be had from such a singular voice in horror cinema.

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